Youth is served.
Certainly it is when it comes to the sport of kayaking and two 12-year-olds who are paddling beyond their years.
Sage Donnelly of Carson City, Nevada, and Henry Hyde of Denver, Colorado, have much in common besides their age and sport of choice. They compete and often beat adult competition, they have realistic aspirations of competing in the 2016 Summer Olympics, and they have conquered waterfalls, having gone where most kids their ages don't even dream of going at age 9, let alone at age 12.
We caught up with the preteens for a [email protected] about running waterfalls, something of a rarity among kayakers their age:
How old were you when you kayaked over your first waterfall, how big a drop was it, and where was it? I ran Graduation Falls in San Marcos, Texas, at the age of 8, which I think is about 15 feet.
How nervous were you as you approached the waterfall? I wasn't really nervous because I watched my friend Chelsea run it first without any trouble.
What was that experience like? Super fun! I ran it several times!
What has been the biggest waterfall you've kayaked over? I have run several 15- to 20-foot straight waterfalls, including Brush Creek, Pauley Creek, and the Tellico River, but the 35-foot dam/ramp on the Feather River was the biggest drop.
Can you name all the waterfalls (with heights) you've done? Federal Falls on Pauley Creek, between 15 and 20 feet; Brush Creek, 20 feet; Tellico River, Baby Falls, 15 feet; Big Bend Dam, 35 feet. [Video below shows Donnelly at age 9 following her father down Big Bend Dam.]
What's more fun, going over a waterfall or competing? They are equal! I like waterfalls because they’re exciting and exhilarating, and I like competing for the same reasons, plus I get to see a lot of my friends I don't see the rest of the year.
Is there a waterfall you hope to one day conquer? If so, which one and how tall? Maybe Pit River Falls on the Pit River in Fall River Mills, California. It is a 30-footer that’s pretty clean, but there are still consequences that I’m not willing to risk yet. I know of several broken paddles and a few helicopter rescues from it.
When you tell your schoolmates about kayaking waterfalls, what kind of reactions do you get? They think I'm crazy! I actually speak to a lot of schools about kayaking and being outdoors, and my waterfall videos usually get the biggest responses.
How surprised are they that you kayak? Most people know I kayak; it's the waterfalls and Class 5 runs that shock them the most. I always have a lot of safety and perfect levels—and people—when I run harder stuff the first few times.
When did you start kayaking, and when did you start competing? I started kayaking at the age of 2 in a tandem kayak with my dad, and was in my own boat doing Class 2 rivers at age 5. I started running down river races at age 6, and I learned to roll at 7, and started freestyle competitions at that point.
How old were you when you kayaked over your first waterfall, how big a drop was it, and where was it? I think the biggest I have done is 25 feet, but my first one was 18 feet. There is video of it out on YouTube. I was 8 or 9 when I did it. It was in San Marcos, Texas. They call it Graduation Falls. [Video of this descent is below.]
How nervous were you as you approached the waterfall? I wasn’t really nervous about it too much. I was more nervous about—would I roll my boat up and not look like an idiot.
What has been the biggest waterfall you've kayaked over? The 25-foot one I did is called Adrenaline Falls. It’s on Lime Creek, north of Durango, Colorado. I was 10 years old when I did that one. That one is pretty technical as you have a 6-foot drop into the slot for the main waterfall. The waterfall is pretty easy, and it’s a deep pool for the landing. The hard part is hitting the 6-footer right and tucking your paddle tight as the slot is not even 5 feet wide. At the bottom of the 6-footer are two folding waves that try to knock you onto one edge of the boat or the other, so you kind of have to fight that.
What's more fun, going over a waterfall or competing? I definitely prefer competing over waterfalls these days. [Hyde admitted that after a couple friends got hurt, he doesn't do waterfalls as much nowadays.] I am working hard toward the U.S. Olympic Team trials for slalom in 2016. A gold medal in the Olympics means a whole heck of a lot to me, and it would mean even more to my country.
Is there a waterfall you hope to one day conquer? If so, which one and why? I suppose there is one waterfall I’d like to do. Well, it’s more like a whole bunch of them. They’re on the Micos, El Salto, and Santa Maria rivers in Mexico. Almost all of them are big with nice soft landings. These are the kinds of waterfalls that you can do tricks off of and the water is warm.
When you tell your schoolmates about kayaking waterfalls, what kind of reactions do you get? Most of my classmates are pretty shocked and amazed by what I do in canoe and kayak. The school administration has been pretty cool about letting me have time off to compete. I usually get lots of homework to take with me, too. I just got back from Europe. I spent two weeks in Spain and France racing in the Pyrenees Cup, an ICF Slalom World Cup rankings race series at La Seu d’Urgell, Spain, and Foix and Pau in France. I’m only 12, so there was no way I was making the podium. I was racing against the world’s best slalom paddlers. But I got to hang out with people like Tony Estanguet and Jessica Fox, both gold medalists in slalom at the 2012 London Games. You can really learn a lot from watching those two run a course. It also gave me a much more thoughtful approach to what I was doing. Besides, how many 12-year-old kids can say they raced on Olympic and World Cup race courses?
How surprised are they that you kayak? The interesting thing with my friends and schoolmates are their parents. They instinctively think “OMG, that’s so dangerous!” In reality, what I do on the water is way safer than what I do on the football field in the fall. Football has a higher incidence of concussions than kayak ever could possibly have.
Photos courtesy of Sage Donnelly and Henry Hyde.
Thanks to Gearjunkie for tip.